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Feature: MSU Sustainability

  • Author:
    Tom Oswald
  • Published:
    Summer 2012

On April 13, 2012, MSU took a giant step toward the future, a future in which the university powers itself with 100 percent renewable energy.

It was on that day that the MSU Board of Trustees officially adopted the university’s Energy Transition Plan, a document that will not only set energy-use standards for the future, but will guide all of MSU’s future energy decisions.

By design, the plan sets high-level goals and recommends strategies that will meet the energy needs of the campus, reduce carbon emissions, and implement renewable energy infrastructure. This will be a university wide effort with far-reaching benefits to improve the world for many generations.

The plan utilizes research from MSU faculty, students and staff , as well as outside experts, and addresses critical variables—reliability, cost, health, environment and capacity—that impact MSU’s many stakeholders in the local community, across the state, and throughout the world.

More than a year in the making, the plan was created by the Energy Transition Steering Committee, a 24-member group of students, faculty and staff whose charge was to develop a plan to help MSU reliably meet its future energy needs while keeping a close eye on costs and environmental impacts.

Among the committee’s members were those who have made it no secret that they are opposed to MSU’s burning of coal in the power plant. Fred Poston, vice president for finance and operation, said the goal all along was to collect a variety of opinions.

“Given the strong views held by many of the committee members, I would have been surprised to receive unanimous support of the resulting compromise plan,” Poston says. “There was, however, strong overall support to move the plan forward.”

The plan has three specific goals:

Improve the physical environment of the campus. That means the pursuit of aggressive, sustainable energy conservation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the re-investment of energy savings for future renewable technologies.

Invest in sustainable energy research and development. The university will strive to promote sustainable energy research by using the campus as a living, learning laboratory for developing, evaluating and demonstrating new technologies.

Become an educational leader in sustainable energy. MSU will apply its knowledge to improve the quality of life for local, regional and national communities. The university will share what it learns through its energy-transition process.

“This is an important step toward a renewable future at MSU,” says MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon. “This plan will set standards and govern future energy decisions, similar to how the Campus Master Plan guides the university’s growth.”

You can learn more about the plan at

Energy and Economic Impact

Poston says that “energy conservation is at the core of the transition plan.” Not only will MSU’s conservation efforts reduce the university’s environmental footprint, it will reduce costs, with a long-term effect of making an MSU education more affordable and accessible to Michigan students and their families.

In addition, a number of local, state and regional companies are working with MSU, creating jobs where before there were few.

For example, Black and Veatch, an accomplished engineering firm, was contracted to inventory and describe MSU’s current power system and to recommend some of the current power energy technologies applicable to the MSU power plant.

Energy Strategies, a nationally recognized firm, helped MSU develop an integrated energy forecasting model that enables users to gain better insights into the economic, operational and environmental tradeoffs for power generation and use at MSU.

MSU also has teamed with Peter Basso Associates, a Michigan firm that has provided invaluable work in what’s known as “retro-commissioning”—the assessment of a building’s energy use and system performance as it pertains, in this case, to energy efficiency.

The firm has worked with MSU on a number of projects—the Broad Art Museum, Shaw Hall dining facility and Marshall-Adams Hall, to name a few. It’s this partnership with MSU that has allowed the company to thrive.

“Although we had provided retro-commissioning services to clients in the past, our continued track record of satisfaction with MSU’s retro-commissioning program has opened up new opportunities for higher-education clients,” says Randy Wisniewski, the company’s director of contract administration/commissioning.“We are proud of our success at MSU and grateful for the opportunity to be a part of their storied program.”

One MSU building that has reaped the benefits of the retro-commissioning program is Erickson Hall, a classroom building and home to MSU’s internationally acclaimed College of Education.

Constructed in 1957, Erickson suffered from a variety of energy inefficiencies that needed to be addressed, including duct-work sealing, outdoor air damper adjustments, inefficient doors and a number of other problems.

After five years of work, the building is humming along like new.

“We’re very pleased with the results we’ve seen on Erickson,” says Lynda Boomer, energy and environmental engineer with MSU Physical Plant. “Th is work has resulted in a 32 percent reduction in energy use.”

Meanwhile, commissioning work has begun on a number of other aging MSU buildings.

“We’ll be doing this work on perhaps another 100 buildings,” Boomer notes. “We’re projecting that across all of the 20 million square feet of campus that we can save, on average, about 20 percent.”

“We are measuring building performance at all levels—device, System, total building, and making minor adjustments as needed,” says Jason Vallance, a commissioning engineer with Physical Plant. “The intention is to ensure that each building we evaluate is operating as close as possible to the current facility requirement with what is currently installed.

“It is through these slight changes and optimizations that energy consumption is lowered.”

And while MSU is investing millions of dollars into this work, it won’t take long to see a return on investment.

“The average payback is about seven years, and that includes funding the commissioning team that is doing the work, the consultants, hiring the contractors and so on,” says Boomer.

In addition to Peter Basso and Black and Veatch, a number of other engineering and consulting firms have been hired by MSU to do much of the initial work on the buildings.

“This has proven to be a win win situation,” Boomer says.“Jobs are created by this need and MSU benefits by getting valuable work done at reasonable rates.”

Despite recent upticks in the nation’s economy, Michigan continues to feel the brunt of it. “We work with a lot of Michigan firms that otherwise wouldn’t be able to hire or even keep many of their employees,” Boomer says.

Saving energy campus wide

Retro-commissioning is just one of many examples of how MSU is performing as an environmental steward. The following are a number of other ongoing projects that demonstrate how MSU is truly green.

Anaerobic Digester

Later this year MSU will debut its second on-campus anaerobic digester, a contraption that takes organic waste from the university’s farms and dining halls and turns it into a renewable source of energy.Anaerobic digesters take waste from livestock and store it in a tank that is deprived of oxygen. This allows the waste materials to decompose quickly and produces methane that can be captured and used as fuel.Otherwise, methane released by waste decomposition in the open represents an extremely potent greenhouse gas.

Not only will this process help keep waste materials from heading to the landfill, it also will produce enough electricity to power several south campus buildings.

In comparison, a smaller anaerobic digester already in use at MSU for research purposes (the Anaerobic Digester Research and Education Center), uses pretty much all of the biogas that is produced to run the system.

“Once complete, this system will be the largest on a college campus in the United States,” says Dana Kirk, a specialist from MSU’s Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering who is overseeing the project. “It will be the largest in volume and in energy output.”

Alternative energies

When it was constructed in 2009, MSU’s Recycling Center and Surplus Store became the first on-campus building to use rooftop solar panels to generate power. The panels produce about 10 percent of the facility’s electricity. Other green features of the building include the use of recycled glass in the concrete around the building, and rainwater collection which is used for toilets, urinals and power washers.

The MSU Pavilion also generates electricity using a solar photovoltaic system.

The new addition to the Life Sciences Building will use geothermal energy sources.Geothermal energy is generated from heat out of the earth’s core.The addition—the Bott Building for Nursing Education and Research—is scheduled to open in November.

For more information on how the geothermal field will work in the Bott Building, check out this video: index.cfm/projects/bott-building.


The T.B. Simon Power Plant burns biomass as a step toward fewer emissions and cleaner air.Of the plant’s five boilers, one is a fluidized-bed boiler specifically for renewable fuels. Earlier this year, power plant engineers increased the amount of biofuel Burned each day from 20 tons to 30 tons.

The biofuel comes from collaboration with other university departments. Plant waste collected by Landscape Services throughout the year is ground down into wood chips that feed the burners. The Kellogg Biological Station and the Dept. of Crop and Soil Sciences research switch grass as a renewable source to determine its yield per acre and its energy output. Once a year, the power plant receives a crop. In January, 10 tons out of the 30 tons daily of renewable energy used was switch grass.


Metering energy use on campus is another key piece for reducing use. The installation of more meters across campus helps energy engineers pinpoint trouble spots and provides more data to determine trends. During the design of new construction and renovation projects, areas are identified where steam meters can go and then real-time smart meters are installed.

Better Buildings Challenge

Last year MSU became a partner in the Better Buildings Challenge (BBC), an initiative of the U.S. Dept. of Energy designed to promote the construction and retro-commissioning of more energy-efficient buildings in the United States.  The BBC calls on chief executive officers, university presidents and state and local leaders to make a substantial commitment to energy efficiency, and recognizes the organizations they lead for achieving results.

Last December, President Simon was among a host of dignitaries who traveled to Washington, DC, to take part in the formal launching of the program. President Barack Obama, Former President Bill Clinton and U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu also took part in the festivities.

In April, MSU selected Anthony Hall as its showcase project in the BBC. A unique building pro ling system identified Anthony as one of the top candidates where energy savings could be realized.

The plan to make the building more energy efficient is expected to be the blueprint that will be carried out on other campus buildings to increase energy efficiency.

For more about the BBC, visit challenge/.

Hybrid vehicles

MSU currently has 69 hybrid vehicles in its fleet that cut fuel consumption by nearly 9,000 gallons annually. The motor pool fleet cut greenhouse gas emissions by 33 percent from 2008 to 2010 and average fuel economy rose 6 miles per gallon since 2006.

In addition, MSU has several electric car-charging stations on campus, including one in the parking ramp of the Kellogg Center.

Concrete and glass

MSU researchers have found that by mixing ground waste glass into the cement that is used to make concrete, the concrete is stronger, more durable and more resistant to water.Two on-campus sites—near the Surplus Store and Recycling Center and the Breslin Student Event Center—currently use the glass-cement mix.

The use of glass helps reduce the amount of glass that ends up in landfills and carbon dioxide emissions which are common due to the high temperatures needed to create cement.

Tom Oswald is a communications manager in MSU Communications and Brand Strategy, who works closely with the MSU Office of Campus Sustainability.